In December 2012, J.M. Coetzee published an article on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books. The reading Coetzee offers tells us that Coetzee sees things in Murnane that concern him, in every sense of the word concern. Indeed, it is possible to claim that Coetzee’s essay offers a preface to a dialogue played out in Coetzee’s most recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus.
In 2006 Murnane was in contention for the Nobel Prize, with the international betting house Ladbrokes quoting him at 33-1. Yet he remains little known: the highest awards he has received are special awards intended as recompense for authors who have been unfairly overlooked.
In his review of Murnane, Coetzee examines passages from Barley Patch (2009) in which the narrative voice contemplates the nature of fiction and the nature of the self. The self, Murnane’s narrator states, is made up of a “network of images.” Coetzee concludes:
The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration. It consists in contemplating the sea of internal images, discerning connections, and setting these out in grammatical sentences… In other words, while there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of… As a writer, Murnane is thus a radical idealist.
This passage indicates a point of difference: a philosophical difference about the nature of the writer and the nature of the reader; a philosophical difference about the kinds of meaning that might be generated through works of fiction.
The problem of idealism is at the heart of these differences. The nature of the inter-relation between the ideal and the real provides one of the most important themes of The Childhood of Jesus. We find ourselves in the midst of a world that is, in some sense, washed clean of the memory—though in the case of the central character, Simón, not all of the images—of our own imperfect and passion-filled world. It is, or offers, in an often repeated phrase, a “new life.” This might be some sort of afterlife; it might be the logical manifestation of Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds,” but there is something here that Simón finds empty.
Yet does the ideal give meaning to life, or is it the other way around? Simón informs us that “Ideas cannot be washed out of us, not even by time. Ideas are everywhere. The universe is instinct without them.” Simón is also certain—at least, when he is forced to explain the world to David, the boy he is compelled to look after—that we are more than just earth, more than simple matter: “What are we like if we are not like poo? We are like ideas. Ideas never die.”
Coetzee’s dialogue with Murnane is signalled ambiguously in The Childhood of Jesus. The boy at the centre of the novel, whom we necessarily relate to Jesus, is called David. Jesus, of course, claimed to be a descendant of King David and “David” is undoubtedly also a reference to Coetzee’s brother, David Keith Coetzee, who died in 2010, and indeed the novel is dedicated to “DKC.” The idea of the brother is something that recurs throughout the novel: David wishes he had two brothers and that he was the youngest. In the New Testament, Jesus is said to have four older brothers, one of whom is called Simon, though the Catholic Church, dedicated to the idea of Mary as a virgin, rejects this and asserts that these “brothers” were either cousins or the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage. In the novel, David’s mother (if she is in fact his mother) is called Inés—the Spanish version of Agnes, one of the Catholic Church’s more prominent virgin saints—and in learning this Simón, or the narrator, reflects: “Inés! So that is the name! And in the name is the...